Talking Tips (Volume 5)
Tricks for making your presentation perkier
by Dan Papia
Imagine you’re at a conference on public transportation and you realize at the last minute that you have to go to at least one talk to justify your break from the mountain of work back at the office. The two remaining options are: (1) “Understanding Tokyo’s Subway System” and (2) “Why the Tokyo Metro is the Best in the World”. Which do you go to?
Yes, of course it’s a trick question. It’s highly unlikely that both talks would be given on the same day, because both would present essentially the same information. However, if they were, the second would certainly win a lot more attendants. The first one sounds like study, while the second brings connotations of an exciting knock-down that ends with the victor standing tall.
There’s an expression in movie writing: exposition should be ammunition. This means that you bore the audience when characters have to stop and explain the set up. However, when characters are in conflict and they’re throwing that same information back and forth as part of the battle, now it’s interesting. There’s also an intriguing global trend relating to how news is presented that I’ve done a lot of research on: more and more consumers are opting to get their information from opinion programs and commentary publications as opposed to from news reporters with the sole aim of being objective. It’s more fun and easier to take it all in when everything’s part of a larger campaign to smash the conservatives or the liberals or even the system as a whole.
This tip is a simple one. At first glance, it may seem overly simple. It’s about how important it is to SIMPLIFY.
It’s not that most of us don’t already know how valuable simplicity is (we instinctively look for it when trying to understand something). The problem is that we tend to assume our stories and explanations are simple to begin with (after all, we know the subject, we know where the talk is going). But what seems simple to the speaker is not always simple from the point of view of the listener.
Remember, listening is hard. Our ears reside on the side of our head and our brains tend to disregard much of the information coming in from them as peripheral noise unless it knows specifically what it needs to be listening for.
I often forget this obvious (and, yes, simple) fact when I’m having a casual conversation with someone, perhaps over lunch. The other party will ask a question like where I’m going after our meeting and that will make me think of the appointment I have with the person whose agreed to adopt the stray kitten I found two nights ago and I’ll suddenly remember all the exciting stories of how I heard the meowing and how I climbed the tree to rescue it and how I nursed it with milk and an eyedropper.
A few sentences in to my adventures, I’ll notice from the look on my luncheon companion’s face that I neglected to set up where this all is leading and my listener has no idea how the story of me climbing the tree two days ago relates to where I’m off to when we leave our restaurant.
I’ll have to backtrack and give my listener a one-sentence summary. Otherwise, he won’t really be appreciating the yarns I’m now spinning (even though he’s nodding intently) because he doesn’t yet know how or where to process them. Fortunately, I’m less inclined to make that goof when delivering a prepared speech because I’ve thought through my points ahead of time. But even if I were to err similarly in front of an audience, the same remedy would apply–read that the crowd is confused, go back and simplify, then move forward.
To be a better communicator, practice being able to codify things in one sentence. If you’re going to give a talk, you should be able to describe what the talk is about in a single sentence. Each of the sections or subtopics or examples or proofs should also be reducible to one sentence. You will be a much more powerful and confident speaker if you have one-line summaries at your command.
What I’ve described the difference between walking up to the podium carrying 20 odd objects in your arms vs. a single bag which contains those 20 objects. Without the bag, you’re vulnerable and clumsy, likely to drop or lose something. With the bag, you’re more collected and better prepared.
Next time you finish a movie or put down a book, be able to explain what it was about in one sentence. That sentence doesn’t have to contain all the details and, if you’ve piqued the other person’s interest, it doesn’t have to be the last.
There’s strength in simplicity and possessing an instinctive ability to simplify. And in the interest of keeping this tip simple, let’s stop here.
Dr. Daniel Papia is a former journalist and working screenwriter who also serves as Diplomatt’s Creative Director. He occasionally coaches top-tier personalities ahead of important international events and conferences.